Commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Chapter 13 of Matthew features the third major discourse of Jesus in this Gospel. In a set of seven parables, Jesus reveals the character of the reign of God—the “reign [or realm] of the heavens,” in Matthew’s customary phrasing (my translation). The teaching session opens with a large crowd standing on the lake shore (verses 1-2) and concludes as Jesus, now addressing his disciples inside a house, pictures the reign of God with fish of every sort lying, again, on a lake shore (verse 48). Interspersed with these parables are explanations of two of them, the sower in verses 18-23 and the wheat and weeds in verse 36-43. Here Jesus invites the disciples to arrive at a deeper understanding not yet attained by the crowds.
The chapter offers two reflections on Jesus’ choice of the parable genre.
- If parables mystify the crowds, it is because they have closed themselves off to the way God’s realm works in the world. Meanwhile, the disciples, who are open to understanding, receive private tutoring that unpacks the parables’ meaning and message (verses 10-17).
- Jesus also opts to teach the crowds in parables because this way of making known previously concealed wisdom fulfills scripture (verses 34-35, quoting Psalm 78:2).
The first parable provides a window onto Jesus’ mission and the divergent responses his words and actions have been prompting. By extension and anticipation, it also shows what his disciples may expect in their future mission. The picture is mixed. Images of failure multiply, yet the outcome is ultimately one of success and fruitfulness—extravagantly so!
From failure to flourishing
Although Matthew sets this parable scene by the lakeside, the parable pictures an individual broadcasting seed (“sowing”) in and around a field. This mini-narrative unfolds in four steps, only the last of which bears promise and thus generates hope.
- A first seed group falls along the path and quickly disappears into the beaks of birds (verse 4). In the retelling of the parable for just the disciples, this seed group represents persons who hear but fail to understand the message of God’s reign—indeed, “the evil one” removes what had been sown (verse 19).
- A second seed group lands in rocky ground, where there is little dirt, and swiftly sprouts, only to wither under the scorching sun because nourishing roots are lacking (verses 5-6). In the parable’s explanation, the second seed group depicts persons who are receptive to the message and even delight in it, yet their initial enthusiasm does not survive the experience of adversity and persecution (verses 20-21).
- A third seed group finds its way to a patch of thorns, which prevent growth to maturity (verse 7). In the parable’s retelling, the thorns represent experiences that hinder persevering faithfulness: anxious concerns and acquisitive greed (verse 22), of the kind Jesus has cautioned against in the Sermon on the Mount (see 6:25-34).
- All is not lost, though! A fourth seed group, benefiting from its location in favorable soil, bears fruit, with yields of stunning proportion, as much as a hundredfold (ranging from 100 to 60 to 30). Matthew reverses the sequence in Mark’s rendition, which moves from small yield to large, 30 to 60 to 100 (Mark 4:8), but in both cases the outcome is an abundant harvest.
The parable rivets our attention on the activity of the sower and therefore on the good-news message of God’s reigning presence in the world. On the one hand, the repeated images of failure lend realism to the work we do as church and ring all too true in our time: many will not be receptive to the message we are called to speak, and some will not persist in faithful practice. Yet the parable also reassures Jesus’ first followers and Matthew’s readers—both ancient and contemporary—that if we persevere, even against the odds, what we do matters. What we say and how we embody the gospel in practice will make a difference in the world. What we do will bear fruit, whether in individual lives or in our faith communities or in the wider society. So: keep on keeping on!
Shifting the gaze: From sower to soil environment
But can more be said? After all, the tag Jesus appends to the parable invites active engagement: “Let anyone with ears listen!” (verse 9). In creative listening mode, what if we shift our gaze from the sower to the environmental conditions that foster or hinder growth? We may revisit the imagery of the parable and reimagine what it is asking of us today. In our own space and time, what do seed-devouring birds and lack of roots and suffocating thorns look like? What experiences engender discouragement and despair rather than hope? What leads some persons beyond the church’s walls to turn away even as they too seek meaning and purpose in their lives? What should we be doing, as cultivators of the soil from which faith may spring, to invite, encourage, and sustain the faithfulness—the hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for justice—to which Matthew’s readers are called?
As I look around, I see things that pose real challenges to faith. To name just a few intersecting concerns: intractable poverty and a wealth gap that seems to grow ever wider; structural racism, still denied by many persons of privilege; intensifying cultural polarization; continuing waves of gun violence; and systemic failures in governance at every level. Especially relevant in reflection upon a story that features soil conditions that lead to crop failure is global climate change, with its devastating effects felt most keenly by people who live in poverty. Whether visualized as beaten path, rocky ground, or thorny patch, these realities make faithful response to the claims of the gospel difficult for many among us. If we attend not only to the task of proclaiming the word but also to the hard work of cultivating nourishing conditions favorable to its reception, we may hear in this parable about sower, seeds, and soils a fresh word for our time.